Comments on Descartes’ Works

[Italics below denote the quotes from Wikipedia Article on Descartes]

Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to provide a philosophical framework for the natural sciences as these began to develop.

I have great admiration for Descartes for both his mathematical and philosophical works.


Emily Grosholz. Cartesian method and the problem of reduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198242506. “But contemporary debate has tended to…understand [Cartesian method] merely as the ‘method of doubt’…I want to define Descartes’s method in broader terms…to trace its impact on the domains of mathematics and physics as well as metaphysics.”

I understand Descartes Method to be a lot more than just a method of doubt. His method helps determine points of certainties.


In his Discourse on the Method, he attempts to arrive at a fundamental set of principles that one can know as true without any doubt. To achieve this, he employs a method called hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt, also sometimes referred to as methodological skepticism: he rejects any ideas that can be doubted, and then reestablishes them in order to acquire a firm foundation for genuine knowledge.

That is a wonderful goal set by Descartes for himself. My personal passion is to make knowledge simpler to understand, starting from fundamental ideas that are on very firm footing. I’ll be ecstatic if I can spot a gap or inconsistency in Descartes’ reasoning. My object for doing that would be  to discover possible simplicities.


Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist (Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy). Most famously, this is known as cogito ergo sum (English: “I think, therefore I am”). Therefore, Descartes concluded, if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting; therefore the very fact that he doubted proved his existence. “The simple meaning of the phrase is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof that he does exist.”

Yes, one can be certain about the existence of thought. I wrote the essay The Nature of Thought to express my ideas on this subject. I can see that thought cannot be separated from me if “me” is looked upon as part of thought. Therefore, “I” would exist as thought. But I doubt Descartes’ conclusion that “I” is the doer and that thought originates from “I”. It is quite possible that essence of thought is independent of “I”, and “I” may simply act on it the way a magnifying glass acts on rays of light.


Descartes concludes that he can be certain that he exists because he thinks. But in what form? He perceives his body through the use of the senses; however, these have previously been unreliable. So Descartes determines that the only indubitable knowledge is that he is a thinking thing. Thinking is what he does, and his power must come from his essence. Descartes defines “thought” (cogitatio) as “what happens in me such that I am immediately conscious of it, insofar as I am conscious of it”. Thinking is thus every activity of a person of which he is immediately conscious.

“Thought is visualization. The purpose of thought is to give form to the unknowable.” The essence of thought could come from some unknowable dimension that is independent of “I”. Thought, “I”, and body exist in the dimension of form. A “thinking thing” could be a “modulating thing” that may be modulating part of some “dimension of no form” into this dimension of form. There is no reason to believe that “thought” and “I” are the fundamental principles of existence.


To further demonstrate the limitations of the senses, Descartes proceeds with what is known as the Wax Argument. He considers a piece of wax; his senses inform him that it has certain characteristics, such as shape, texture, size, color, smell, and so forth. When he brings the wax towards a flame, these characteristics change completely. However, it seems that it is still the same thing: it is still the same piece of wax, even though the data of the senses inform him that all of its characteristics are different. Therefore, in order to properly grasp the nature of the wax, he should put aside the senses. He must use his mind. Descartes concludes:

“And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.”

One is looking at change. Form changes. Is there a constant underlying this changing form perceived by the senses? Descartes concludes it is the faculty of judgment. This is what I have referred to as the ability to consider. But does this ability reside in this dimension of form? I doubt that it does.


In this manner, Descartes proceeds to construct a system of knowledge, discarding perception as unreliable and instead admitting only deduction as a method. In the third and fifth Meditation, he offers an ontological proof of a benevolent God (through both the ontological argument and trademark argument). Because God is benevolent, he can have some faith in the account of reality his senses provide him, for God has provided him with a working mind and sensory system and does not desire to deceive him. From this supposition, however, he finally establishes the possibility of acquiring knowledge about the world based on deduction and perception. In terms of epistemology therefore, he can be said to have contributed such ideas as a rigorous conception of foundationalism and the possibility that reason is the only reliable method of attaining knowledge.

Perceptions originate from one’s consideration of what is out there. Perceptions on the surface are changing all the time, but the considerations that underlie them become more and more persistent in their form as one dives deeper into thought. But even those deepest considerations are, ultimately, arbitrary. It is the consistency of such considerations which makes them so persistent. Deduction is simply diving deeper toward increasingly persistent (unchanging) considerations. If there is God, it does not lie in this dimension of form. Viewing from this dimension, God is simply unknowable. Any speculations or lasting considerations about God are simply modulations of thought. Knowledge could be a rigorous system consistent within itself, even when the foundations are arbitrary. Those foundations have only to be firmly set. From then on it is consistency that forms the basis of reason.


In Descartes’s system, knowledge takes the form of ideas, and philosophical investigation is the contemplation of these ideas. This concept would influence subsequent internalist movements as Descartes’s epistemology requires that a connection made by conscious awareness will distinguish knowledge from falsity. As a result of his Cartesian doubt, he viewed rational knowledge as being “incapable of being destroyed” and sought to construct an unshakable ground upon which all other knowledge can be based. The first item of unshakable knowledge that Descartes argues for is the aforementioned cogito, or thinking thing.

There is nothing fundamentally true or false. But there are fundamentals regarded as true because of their firmness. Any relative inconsistency with respect to those fundamentals, and their derivatives, would then be regarded as falsity. None of the consistency, which underlies reasoning itself, can ever be destroyed because its power comes from the firmness of the fundamentals. Descartes views the premise of “thinking thing” as that fundamental firmness, even when it can be shown to be arbitrary. The fundamentals are only as firm as one considers them to be.


Descartes also wrote a response to skepticism about the existence of the external world. He argues that sensory perceptions come to him involuntarily, and are not willed by him. They are external to his senses, and according to Descartes, this is evidence of the existence of something outside of his mind, and thus, an external world. Descartes goes on to show that the things in the external world are material by arguing that God would not deceive him as to the ideas that are being transmitted, and that God has given him the “propensity” to believe that such ideas are caused by material things.

The firmness of the external world is simply a reflection of the firmness of one’s fundamental beliefs that one may not be fully aware of. Hence they seem to come involuntarily. Thus, the external word seems to provide evidence to an internal “programming” that one is not aware of.


Descartes was also known for his work in producing the Cartesian Theory of Fallacies. This can be most easily explored using the statement: “This statement is a lie.” While it is most commonly referred to as a paradox, the Cartesian Theory of Fallacies states that at any given time a statement can be both true and false simultaneously because of its contradictory nature. The statement is true in its fallacy. Thus, Descartes developed the Cartesian Theory of Fallacies, which greatly influenced the thinking of the time. Many would-be philosophers were trying to develop inexplicable statements of seeming fact, however, this laid rumors of such a proposition impossible. Many philosophers believe that when Descartes formulated his Theory of Fallacies, he intended to be lying, which in and of itself embodies the theory.

A problem persists as long as one is not aware of the solution. Confusion persists as long as one is not aware of the stable data. The moment one becomes aware of the solution or the stable data, problems and confusions disappear. Thus, underlying anything that is persisting, there is something unknown. It is the absence of that knowledge, which produces the persistance. This is how the Cartesian Theory of Fallacies may be best explained.

The Cartesian approach is a shorter version of my favorite “neti, neti.”


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